UK Space Agency awards funding for OU research into life on Mars

OU scientists have received a new research grant to help investigate whether there was once life on Mars.

Two Open University academics have been awarded combined funding of over £200,000 to investigate whether primitive life-forms ever existed.

Mars: NASA's Exploration Rover beams back our most detailed view yet of the surface of the Red Planet Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

The funding, from the UK Space Agency Aurora Science Fellowship programme, has been awarded to Dr Peter Fawdon and Dr James Holmes, both from the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Interest in the red planet has never been greater. Earlier this year NASA landed the Perseverance probe on Mars, and that was followed by the Chinese Space Agency successfully landing its probe on the surface of the planet.

Next year a Mars rover built in Stevenage is due to launch. It plays a key role in the ESA and Roscosmos's two-part ExoMars mission, the first of which - called the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) - was launched in 2016.

The aim of the TGO was to "sniff out" gases in the Martian atmosphere and look for evidence of methane - an indication of life on or below the planet's surface.

Researchers from the  Open University In Milton Keynes revealed the TGO had found traces of water vapour, one of the key ingredients of life.

The second part of the ESA and Roscosmos's Mars mission is scheduled to launch next year, when the Rosalind Franklin rover takes off.

Dr Fawdon has received just over £104,000 to research the timings and locations of the most habitable periods in the geological history of Mars.

His research will explore Oxia Planum, the landing site which the Rosalind Franklin rover mission, which forms part of the ExoMars mission, will visit in 2022.

The Rosalind Franklin being prepared to leave Airbus in Stevenage Credit: Aaron Chown/PA

Dr Holmes has received just over £102,000 from the same scheme to look at how variations in atmospheric dust affect water loss on Mars. The work could help inform the debate around the potential for life on Mars.

The project is planned for three years, with the first year guaranteed by UK Space Agency budget. The research will be conducted as part of the OU ExoMars team.